On Christmas Eve this year, I – being the sentimental lover of organized fun that I am – made my family indulge in a game of 2016 reflections, where we went around the room and shared our highlights of the year. I was the last one to go, and when we finally got to me, my little sister sarcastically said “Hmm, I wonder what Hailey’s highlight of 2016 was.”
She was referring to Rio, the ostensibly obvious answer. I mean, that’s what anyone who got to go to the Paralympics/Olympics would respond with, right? But when I think about the year that I had, the highlight was not actually Rio itself — it was the process of getting there. It was the lessons I learned, the people I shared it with, and the self growth that I achieved along the way. Moreover, it was learning how to embrace the process while it was happening.
You know that old cliche: “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” While I’d seen this quote plastered on many a decorative wall art in the past, I never fully understood its validity until this year.
I started 2016 with a very different mindset. At that time, I was obsessed with one thing — the goal of winning in Rio. Consequently, I was going into every workout with this giant (self-imposed) pressure to execute it perfectly. I was constantly comparing myself to other athletes, and was self-conscious about everything I was doing in my training. I had a chronic buzz of anxiety that was beginning to consume me. While I was still excited about the destination of Rio, I was not enjoying the journey.
I’ve always believed that certain people come our lives during times that we need them the most, and that certainly proved to be true in 2016. When my focus was so narrow that all I could see was the destination, I had people enter my life who forced me to widen my view and embrace the journey.
A few months into the new year, I started working with a new triathlon coach, Mark. A big part of our work together involved reframing my goals from being outcome-focused to process-driven. This meant that instead of worrying about hitting every pace exactly as it was written (outcome), I focused my attention on task-oriented skills, like maintaining a strong pull on my swim stroke or keeping a quick cadence on the run (process). Mark really emphasized that strong character is what drives results, so while part of his job involved writing my training sessions, the more significant part was in helping me develop as a person. I soon found that I was no longer obsessing over a race that was months in the future, but rather was directing my energy toward what I could do in that moment on that day to be the best that I could be.
Then there was Sara, my sport psychologist, who I also started working with around this time. Sara introduced me to the principles of mindfulness, which tied in perfectly to my work in becoming process-oriented. By integrating mindfulness into my life, she helped me become more present in everything I did. Rather than dwelling on my thoughts, I learned how to accept them for what they were. Rather than fighting distressful emotions, I learned how to sit with them, embrace the discomfort that came with them, and eventually ride them out. Over time, I was able to limit the amount of time I spent distracted by my own self-judgements, and instead direct that energy towards being focused on the task at hand (i.e. the process). And all of that work in tolerating the more difficult emotions produced a pretty awesome side effect: it taught me how to embrace vulnerability and become a more authentic version of myself.
Finally, there were my training partners and friends who reinvigorated my training by showing me that being part of a pack is a lot more fun than being a lone wolf. They more than anyone helped me find more joy in the process than I ever could have imagined (more on that here).
All of these people played critical roles in helping me embrace the process of preparing for Rio, but at the end of the day, it was on me. I was the one who had to buy in to this seemingly ridiculous idea that it is the process that drives outcomes. And I’m not going to lie, it was really hard at first. When you’re wired to value outcomes over everything else, that shift in mindset takes a lot of work. But slowly over the course of the year, I started to see the benefits. After weeks of dedicating myself to the process, this sense of self-trust began to emerge. I developed this confidence that the decisions I was making were the right ones, and this belief that I had all the tools that I needed to perform.
All of that work culminated in Rio. For me, the most memorable moment of the entire Rio experience was not crossing the finish line or standing on the podium — it was sitting on the start pontoon in the seconds before my race began. I remember looking out at the breathtaking mountains in front of me, invigorated by the cheering back at the shore, and just feeling go grateful. I was appreciative of the opportunity to be there, I was proud of the person that the journey had helped me become, and in that moment, I had never been more happy to race. My newfound self-trust lent itself to this sense of calmness that I had never experienced before. While I was ready to race my heart out, I knew deep down that it didn’t matter what happened on the course that day. I was beginning that race as the best version of myself that I had ever been, and that alone was worth more than any medal.
Today, I can confidently say that 2016 was the best year of my life. The funny thing about that statement is that the “old” Hailey would have looked at the season that I had and said that it was a flop. I didn’t win a single race. I placed lower than I ever had in two of my four ITU races. And if you were really bold, you could say that I fell short of my goal by not getting that gold medal in Rio. But the Hailey today knows that the results of my races are not the things that matter. What matters is how I’ve learned to view my worth as more than my resume; how I’ve become more comfortable in my skin than I have ever been; how I’m continuing to become a person that I am truly proud of.
And that, my friends, is a year well-lived.